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Name: People v. Hochstraser
Case #: H032765
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 6 DCA
Opinion Date: 10/27/2009

A warrantless entry into a residence based on a missing-person report was lawful due to exigent circumstances. Santa Clara police were dispatched to check on a child based on a report by the child’s mother that the child was with his father and she had received reports of some domestic violence which had occurred at father’s residence. The father’s girlfriend was also missing. Officers entered the residence, concerned that someone might be injured following the domestic-violence report. They encountered appellant, who was sitting on a bed in the dark. They inquired about the domestic violence incident. Appellant responded that he and his girlfriend had a fight the previous evening, and she had left. He said that he had taken the child to the grandmother’s house. Officers said that appellant seemed “spacey” and was vague and evasive in his answers to their questions. Officers noted a strong smell of bleach, and found three or four saw blades. They also found personal items, including car keys, belonging to the missing girlfriend. Officers asked why the girlfriend had left without her keys, but appellant had no answer. Officers asked to search the car, but did not receive consent. In the car, they found human body parts. Later, they obtained consent to search from appellant’s mother, who owned the car. Appellant was convicted of first-degree murder. In his appeal from the denial of his suppression motion, appellant argued that exigent circumstances did not exist to justify the warrantless entry into the home. The appellate court rejected the argument, finding that the totality of circumstances justified the entry into the home to ascertain whether the child and appellant’s girlfriend had been injured. Appellant also contended that even if the initial entry was warranted, subsequent searches of the apartment and car were illegally extended to a criminal investigation, beyond the limitations of any community caretaker justification. The appellate court rejected that argument as well, finding substantial evidence in plain view which justified the search. (The smell of chlorine, they saw blades in the kitchen and living room, the victim’s personal items, appellant’s demeanor, etc.) Further, the automobile exception to the warrant requirement was fully applicable to the car in which the dismembered body was found.